Sichan Siv was a victim of the Khmer Rouge. Among the nearly
2 million killed under the regime were 15 members of his family. But Siv Sichan
has, as they say in Khmer, floating bones: He not only escaped death under the
regime but rose to a high-ranking position in the White House.
He arrived for a brief visit to Cambodia this week to discuss his memoir, “Golden Bones,” published earlier this year.
He was appointed in 2001 as US ambassador to United Nation’s Economic and Social Council, having served as deputy assistant to then-president George H.W. Bush in Public Liaison office and as deputy assistant secretary for South Asian affairs, from 1989 to 1993.
The former ambassador told VOA Khmer in Phnom Penh that his successes came from the struggles and hardships he encountered as soon as he set foot in America, in 1976.
“I arrived in Connecticut with $2 in my pocket, and I think I was successful because I had to work,” he said. “I didn’t think of the past; it was agonizing and terrifying. So I thought about the future. I just kept working. I picked apples in Connecticut. I was a taxi driver in New York. And then I received a scholarship and got a master’s in international affairs at Columbia University.”
His rise came from inauspicious beginnings.
Sichan Siv worked for the American relief agency CARE before the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, five days after he missed the last evacuation helicopter. He had attended a meeting in Kampong Speu province seeking a way to help 3,000 stranded families.
That missed evacuation changed his life. He and his family were moved to Bati district, Takeo province, the birthplace of his already deceased father, as the Khmer Rouge declared Year Zero and began implementing their vision of an agrarian communist utopia.
Sichan Siv had been the only son in his family to attend college, earning a bachelor’s degree at Phnom Penh University. He spoke both French and English, making him a target of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who sought out intellectuals for execution. But it was not he who died.
“Among 16 of us, I was the only one who survived after we left Bati,” he said. He survived in silence. “I shut my mouth. I knew nothing, I heard nothing, I saw nothing, I said nothing. I just kept silent.”
The Khmer Rouge cadre would ask him about his background, he said, “but I kept telling them the same thing: I was a worker, worker, worker.”
He found himself working for the regime as a timber hauler in Sisophon, near the Thai border.
“On the 13th of February, 1976, I was sitting on the roof of a truck at the back of a truck. I jumped off and walked three days through the jungle to Thailand,” he said, falling into a pit of bamboo spikes along the way. “I was seriously injured, but I tried to limp to Thailand, where after I arrived, they put me in jail, because I had no documents.”
Once the Thais were convinced he was not a Khmer Rouge soldier, he was released to a refugee camp in Aragn, where he taught English to other refugees. By mid-1976, he was adopted by a family in the US. Thirteen years later, aged 41, he was working in the White House, becoming the 28th US ambassador to the United Nations.
The former ambassador said recently the success in his life was due to luck. He received his Columbia scholarship at a time when the university had announced it would admit people from poor countries. He entered the White House by chance, too, when the first Bush administration was looking for a foreign-language speakers and education in international affairs. (He had been among thousands of volunteer in Bush’s first election campaign, in 1988.)
Despite this seeming luck, some Cambodians view him as a man with golden bones—words that emerged as the title of his memoir, published in July by Harper Collins.
Siv Sichan presented a copy of “Golden Bones” to the National Library on Friday, following a lecture at Pannasastra University of Cambodia Thursday. The former ambassador will attend a book signing at Monument Books in Phnom Penh Saturday evening.